In 2005, Americans woke up to the reality of peak oil, the predicament first described by geologist M.K. Hubbert in which world oil production would reach a peak, followed by an inevitable decline. Three things worked together to set off the alarm.
First was a steep rise in gas prices. Although gas prices had risen before, they had always been followed by a drop as production rose to meet demand. 2005 was different, because respected oil analysts such as Kenneth Deffeyes and Matt Simmons spoke up to tell us that not only were the super giant oil fields of the Middle East slowly petering out, but the pace of new oil discoveries was down as well.
What finally opened many eyes to the likelihood of peak oil was the growing realization that the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq had nothing to do with WMDs or the war on terrorism. And if it wasn’t about those two things, then why else would oilmen Bush and Cheney have conned us into the Iraq adventure? It had to be because they were desperate to control one of the last places in the world where cheap oil could be had.
With the rise in peak oil awareness came a desperate search for a silver-bullet solution – proponents of nuclear power, ethanol, coal, tar sands and oil shale all argued that these energy sources would fill the gap left by declining oil reserves and keep the American way of life intact. Too many people, deep down, agreed with Dick Cheney’s assertion that the American way of life was “not negotiable.”
But there is no negotiating with a hurricane, either. Hurricane Katrina, whipped into ferocious strength by a warming ocean, convinced many that the warnings about global climate change were to be taken seriously. And taking climate change seriously means that tar sands, oil shale and coal are off the table as solutions to the energy crisis, because these fuels are all far more carbon-heavy than the crude oil we currently rely on.
So in 2006, we started seeing more attention to the two paths that can lead us forward: energy efficiency and renewable energy. As Democrats take over Congress in 2007, promising action on energy and climate change, it is important to look critically at the available options. The news about climate change looks grimmer every day, alerting us to the fact that we have no time to waste and we can’t afford to invest precious resources in false technology promises and energy dead-ends.
Fortunately, a lot of brilliant minds are at work on these problems, and a number of good ideas have surfaced in 2006 that are worth further investigation. Below I list five technologies that seem especially promising. I’ll be keeping an eye on these technologies to see where they go in 2007.
Light Emitting Diodes are already ubiquitous in our lives as indicators that our electronic devices are plugged in and sucking power, often on standby, from the grid. But they could be doing much more for us. They could light up our lives with a fraction of the electrons used by old-fashioned incandescent bulbs that waste 90-95 percent of the expensive electricity we feed them, producing more heat than light. Today, lighting uses about 25 percent of all the electrical power we generate. Compact fluorescent bulbs are currently the best option, but LEDs are catching up.
Researchers made a breakthrough this year that pushed white LED output up to 130 lumens per watt. By comparison, an incandescent bulb produces 15 lumens per watt and fluorescent bulbs range from 60 to 110 lumens per watt. The progress is so encouraging that some researchers expect to reach 150 lumens per watt with LED bulbs in the next few years.
For the past few years, the solar photovoltaic (solar PV) industry has been growing like corn on a hot summer night, held back only by a shortage of its highly purified silicon raw material. Shortages eased this year as new suppliers began coming on line. However, the supply shortage is not over and has the potential to cripple the industry over the next few years, according to a Financial Times article of November 20, 2006.
One result of the silicon shortage has been a plethora of research projects to develop new designs and manufacturing processes that use less silicon, along with some that use no silicon at all. These technologies all come under the heading of “thin film” PV. While much cheaper to produce than the standard silicon PV modules, the thin-film modules to date have only about half the efficiency, so that more area must be covered with the material to produce the same amount of electricity.
The development to watch is NanoSolar’s copper indium gallium diselenide technology. Unlike the other thin-film technologies, this one is almost as efficient as the proven standard. The Silicon Valley start-up will open manufacturing facilities in 2007 in San Jose, California, and Berlin, Germany. They plan to produce 400 megawatts of solar capacity per year. If successful, NanoSolar could revolutionize the solar industry.
Wind power continues to expand around the world, although growth in the US was slower in 2006 than it was in 2005. But In late December, Southern California Edison signed the largest wind energy contract from a US utility yet, for 1500 megawatts of power. Wind power has the potential to supply a large portion of our energy needs.
The best thing about wind power is that once you build the turbine, the fuel is free. But you can’t always count on the wind to be there when you need it. The solution is to increase the height of wind turbines so they operate where the wind is stronger and steadier. But what if wind power could be freed from the need for tall, heavy masts? What if you could fly a wind turbine like a kite?
Enthusiasts are working on several innovative concepts for flying wind turbines. One uses the tethered kite concept; one relies on a blimp for lift; one uses kites in a loop like a Ferris wheel; another is modeled on a merry-go-round. But none of this kite-flying is child’s play. If any of these concepts prove workable, wind power could end up making a greater contribution to our energy needs than anyone has yet imagined.
Plug-In Hybrids and the V2G
At the end of 2006, General Motors announced it would commit to manufacturing a plug-in hybrid vehicle. A plug-in hybrid adds a larger battery pack and a plug to charge the batteries with grid power, allowing the car to rely more on the electric drive and less on the fuel supply. A new study for the Department of Energy has found that we already have enough electrical generating capacity to power 84 percent of our 220 million vehicles if they were plug-in hybrids. That’s because our capacity is designed to meet peak power needs for air conditioning on hot afternoons, and when peak power is not needed there is plenty of spare capacity to charge electric car batteries.
This would be a bad trade-off where grid power is provided by coal. But ask not what grid can do for your car; rather, ask what your car can do for the grid.
The real promise of plug-in hybrids is using their batteries to stabilize a power grid that is supplied by renewable but variable wind and solar power. Dubbed “vehicle to grid,” or V2G for short, the idea is to use the combined storage power of 220 million mobile battery packs to buffer the grid whenever the vehicles are not in use. Vehicles would absorb excess power at night or on sunny or windy days. The vehicle battery packs could then be tapped to help out during peak demand periods and a computerized “smart grid” would regulate it all. The potential is huge. Terry Penney, a technology manager at the National Renewable Energy Lab said, “if millions of these [plug-in hybrids] were produced, it would enable some of the renewable technologies to really take off.”
Terra Preta – The Black Earth
I’ve saved the best for last. Terra preta is new to Western science, but it is an old technology from the Amazon that disappeared when the native populations were wiped out by European diseases after Columbus.
The technology of black earth is simple: Instead of slashing and burning the rainforest to make way for agriculture, long lost Amazonian civilizations burned forest slash in smoldering piles to make charcoal, and then buried the charcoal in the soil. This produces an astounding increase in soil fertility. The charcoal itself adds nutrients to soil, but it also acts as a sponge to absorb and retain any manures or other added fertilizers for very long periods of time. Some of the terra preta soils created more than 500 years ago are still highly fertile today.
Terra preta could be a win-win-win-win solution of tremendous magnitude. Here’s how it would work: Farmers would start by growing biomass for energy – cornstalks, for instance. The material would be heated with solar furnaces to make the charcoal, which releases gases like methane. These gases can be collected and burned for energy. Then the charcoal gets buried in the fields, making them more productive. But the biggest prize of all is the carbon sequestration. This is a highly effective process for pulling carbon out of the atmosphere and putting it into long-term storage in the earth.
The best thing about this idea is that anyone can do it. My resolution for 2007 is to try this in my own garden. But all the voluntary efforts of individuals and even corporations won’t be enough to tackle the energy/climate crisis. We need a society-wide mobilization of resources to develop these excellent ideas and others, and put them into practice. My hope for 2007 is that the new Congress will be up to it.
Kelpie Wilson is the Truthout environment editor. A veteran forest protection activist and mechanical engineer, she is the author of Primal Tears, an eco-thriller novel published by North Atlantic Books.